In Discussion with Ico Guarini

In Discussion with Ico Guarini

How did you become interested in landscape photography?

The answer is both simple and complex. Some of my first memories as a child were about a place called San Candido, in the Italian Dolomites. That is where I got my early introduction to Nature and the wonder of majestic views and landscapes. My father was a passionate amateur photographer (I still have his now vintage Leica range finder camera from the 1930s or 40s), and he was my first exposure to photography.

Fast forward to my early teens, when I spent two summers back to back in a camp near Davos, Switzerland. That experience totally cemented my feeling of wonder and awe for nature. Also, very early in life, I started noticing light. From the love of sunsets to a beam of light coming through a window to highlights on an object or a structure, light made me happy.

As I got my hands on a camera, I started seeking light and tried to translate my emotional reaction into photographs. It has been a long journey, punctuated by many changes in technology: the SLR (I initially used a 1970 Fuji system, eventually replaced by Nikon), the digital revolution, and the ability to manipulate the image with post-processing, and finally the mirrorless system and my return to Fuji, including my recent dipping into medium format. It has been a voyage of discovery and education. That is the technical side.

Travel and seeing many parts of the world has been another major contributor to my interest in landscape photography. Aside from the beauty of nature and the outdoors, travel exposes you to the incredible diversity of human nature. In the end, I think this makes you a more sensitive human being. All these experiences, intellectual or emotional, the constant changes and advances, have only helped the central theme of my photography - to translate the emotions and feelings that light and nature evoke in me into images. It is a bit egocentric, as I believe I enjoy my images more than anybody else. However, I am gratified if others can share a bit of the emotion that a particular image gives me.

Hailing from Brooklyn, NYC: is it the landscape photographers paradise that most of us imagine it to be?

New York. The City. I have lived here for 42 years, 20 in Brooklyn. I actually find it intriguing that you would refer to it as a landscape paradise. Grit, people, huge diversities, architectural details and towering buildings. I guess that is what most people think of NYC in general, and photographically. Yet NYC also offers incredible views and truly incredible light.

I remember watching in awe the light bathing the rooftops at sunrise or sunset during my Pediatric residency years ago. It was a moment of peace and it provided some separation from my challenging occupation. I only later discovered that Edward Hopper had previously seen the same and translated this into beautiful art in his paintings.

That kind of light and the incredible sunsets that explode with regularity here in the city, are some of the most evocative moments that I regularly witness in NYC. The combination of dramatic sunsets, cloud formations, and NYC bridges makes for especially epic images. Watching (and hopefully photographing) a dramatic sunset with lower Manhattan and its bridges in the foreground is often breathtaking.

But let's not forget the Verrazano Bridge. Not often mentioned or featured, this is a structure that dominates the sky the closer you are; its simplicity highlights the breathtaking sunset. All this beauty is in stark contrast with the most common light situation seen here, which I call “NYC Grey”, good for street photography and portraits, but not for landscape!

One last point about living in NYC is that it probably makes you more deeply appreciate the solitude and introspection being in the “Great Outdoors”. I am happy in NY, but I am happier under a big sky somewhere else.

Born in Italy, have you had the chance to return and shoot any landscapes in your homeland?

I was born in Napoli, Italy. It is an incredible city full of contrasts. Harsh and beautiful at the same time, Napoli shares some similarities with NYC. I am deeply in love with its culture and its beauty, as most Neapolitan are. I totally enjoy photographing its narrow streets and old buildings, but the grand view of the gulf of Napoli dominated by Mount Vesuvius is definitely my landscape photographer’s paradise. And I cannot talk about Napoli without adding a word about the Amalfi Coast, with its amazing combination of daunting cliffs and charming human settlements. I never get tired of visiting and photographing that area.

I am biased towards Napoli, but many other areas in Italy offer incredible diversity and beauty as well. The countryside is incredible and the landscape photographer will find natural beauty and a human footprint that is awe-inspiring.

At this point in time, I am particularly fond of searching for images that connect the ancient culture of Italy and its terrain. Small towns and villages, the more isolated the better, are subjects of great interest to me. I also love to visit Italy “off-season” to avoid large crowds which obscure the landscape and the culture.

The other advantage of photographing small towns and villages in Italy is the opportunity to consume the most authentic regional Italian food. The flavor of that cuisine is incredibly evocative and brings back memories of my childhood in that beautiful land.

I do go to Italy often to visit my 104-year-old mother. I have used these trips as an opportunity to carve out 48 hours to reach a destination I have on my “bucket list” of places to photograph. Generally, this means photographing the pre-dawn light, sunsets, and capturing moments of Italy on the run. It is effective and it works for me. Beneath these experiences, is my search to reconnect with my origins, which I think is not uncommon amongst immigrants, as I am.

Do you have a personal approach to landscape photography?

I follow my fantasy. Since it is mine, I guess that makes it a personal approach. I try to find places and things that intrigue me. In the past, reading brought me to different destinations, however, I have to confess that the Internet has changed that. E-publications such your magazine are very helpful to “see through other people’s eyes” and find targets for my photographic wanderings. For a visual person like me, YouTube has also been a great source for learning photographic techniques, and a source of inspiration for potential locations to photograph.

By nature, I tend to be instinctual and I like to do things in the spur of the moment. My idea of a good time is getting into a car and driving as long as I can, exploring and photographing sites as they capture my attention. But I have learned that research and preparation are very important aspects of landscape photography.

Thus, I have discovered and tried to master the modern tools that allow you to find where and when to go, and which lenses to carry for the shot. It is a great convenience and time-saver (as one gets older there is less and less!). But there is a part of me that still loves the joy of stumbling upon a perfect location while wandering around.

My instinct is to grab a long lens when it comes to photographing landscape (or other subjects for that matter). I do like details, and I have an emotional reaction to the compressed nature of the images that long lenses produce. Over time I have learned how to use and enjoy using wide-angle lenses. It is for me intellectually stimulating and challenging. It also requires me to slow down, and to think of the various elements that are required to make the image work. Like any other activity that requires concentration and attention, it is something akin to meditation.

What is your post-processing workflow of choice?

I learned Adobe Lightroom first, as I was intimidated by Photoshop. In the last 2-3 years I dove into Photoshop and I am now reasonably proficient. It has been a real journey and not just a technical one. I put my hands on a digital camera in 1999, eventually shifted to all-digital in the mid-2000, then a full-frame digital DSLR (Nikon D3) when it first came out (2008).

During that time I shot JPEG, as I did not realize the full potential of digital photography. My first workshop with Michael Mariant motivated me to shoot RAW and Manual. Using RAW has opened the door to the incredibly creative world of post-processing. I discovered that in our current modern era of photography, we create images that can be as close to reality or our fantasy as we like.

I like to experiment. I have gone through various types of interpretations of images including HDR. I have played with time blending, which I love, but I find it very time consuming to acquire the image and edit it appropriately in post. That being said, I have to confess that after seeing Elia Locardi’s image shot in Positano (Amalfi Coast), I tried to emulate his style. I know Positano well. Using Google Earth, I identified the location of his photograph, and after a mad dash from Napoli to Positano, I managed to get to the exact setting in time and was rewarded by a glorious sunset and suitable conditions to do the time blend (although Elia did this much better).

Currently, I use Lightroom for my basic raw adjustments, including local adjustments. I then move to Photoshop where I use curves, Dodging and Burning and LUT to play with colors. I also use Tony Kuyper’s TKaction panels extensively. With these techniques, I try my best to develop photographs that I like and hopefully are evolving into my personal style.

Any particular sources of inspiration that have shaped your work?

First and foremost I love to look at other people’s images. Landscape, street, fashion - it does not matter. I love to view photographs. Other people’s images are an inspiration and a spark to my fantasy. Perhaps more importantly, many people have been great teachers and inspirations.

I met Micheal Mariant at the first landscape photography in Death Valley. He immediately proceeded to take me outside my comfort zone. His aim was to teach and make sure that the participants would go home with a larger understanding of photography. His impressive academic knowledge coupled with humility, a sense of humor and profound knowledge of the locations, and love for photography provided sources of inspiration for me. I have done many workshops with him, but I have not seen him since he had some medical issues. I do miss him.

I first learned about Alain Briot by reading your magazine. Alain has introduced me to the concept that what is in front of your camera can (and probably should) be filtered and transformed by your fantasy, using the tools of the trade. I connected nearly instantly to his way of using the camera. He also introduced me to the marvels of post-processing. He is very intelligent and very opinionated. He makes you reflect on your work and encourages you to grow your own style.

Jeff Schewe expanded my understanding of post-processing and introduced me to digital printing. His books sit on my night table, as I like to pick them up from time to time to refresh some of the concepts. He is very intelligent and has a unique style of teaching.

As I mentioned previously, I also spend some time on YouTube where I have found a wealth of knowledge and inspiration, that I believe has made me a better photographer.

What are your plans for the future in terms of your photography?

I would like to shoot as much as I can and do so in as many interesting places as possible. Well, that is more of a wish than a plan. I still work full time and have a demanding schedule, so my time is a bit limited. On the other hand, as I slide (slowly) toward retirement, I anticipate spending more time photographing. I would also like to print more and find ways to show my work publicly. These goals are very challenging, I know, yet every voyage starts with the first step and I am trying to find that step.

I am also starting to play with medium format. As it has gotten cheaper (relatively speaking) to get into digital medium format, I invested in the Fuji GFS 50R. Still new to this, I think it opens a somewhat different way to shoot landscape photography. I look forward to the learning process and I hope the photographic results will be pleasing.

I was born in Napoli Italy. I studied and went to medical school there. I came to the USA to do a postdoc as many of us working in a lab and never left. I had done Pediatrics in Napoli and I continued on that track doing my residency and then my fellowship (in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology) all in New York City. I then remained in NY, working at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan and then at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn where I am still working.

I have taken courses and workshops in photography on and off throughout my stay in the US, including black and white film development and enlarging (that I eventually had to give up as the enlarger competed with the use of the bath tab in a small NYC apartment). Always interested in the outdoors (skiing, hiking, sailing, biking), I continue still today to get to the outdoors whenever possible. Also a passionate traveler, I try to explore new places whenever I can and rediscover places I have already visited, I enjoy rediscovery often more than the initial discovery. Photography has been my companion in many of these activities.

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